Learning Objectives

  • Question who/what holds the power and control in the scholarly publishing system.
  • Consider how these power dynamics influence the culture of scholarly publishing and academia and inhibit its transformation.
  • Define Open Access (OA) and articulate its benefits for the knowledge ecosystem.

Now that we’ve discussed the basic mechanics of the scholarly publishing system, let’s move on to a deeper examination of the way that it operates. Let’s ask why it’s set up as it is. Who does it benefit, and how? Who holds the power? Because power goes hand-in-hand with money, control, and influence, and because scholarly journals are at the center of the system, let’s start by asking: 

Who owns and operates scholarly journals?

A large proportion of scholarly journals are owned and operated by commercial (for-profit) publishers, and specifically by a cluster of large companies or “oligopoly” that dominate the scholarly publishing marketplace. In fact, “the top five most prolific publishers account for more than 50% of all papers published in 2013.”[1] In some disciplines, such as the social sciences, the number was even higher, at 70%. These “big five”  or “giant” commercial publishers, as they are known, include RELX Group (formerly Reed-Elsevier), Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Sage.

What do the publishers gain, and at whose expense?

Commercial publishers are just that: commercial. They are like any other business in that they exist to generate a profit. They usually do this by charging fees (typically subscription costs) to access the content. Academic libraries are the primary subscribers. They allocate part of their budget each year to pay for journal subscriptions in order to provide their user community (students, faculty, and staff) with access to the scholarly content they need for research and educational purposes. Because many scholarly journals are quite expensive — subscribing to a single journal can cost several thousand dollars every year — individuals rely on this access paid for by their library.

But the academic community created scholarly literature in the first place . . . right? Why are they paying for their own content?

That’s why it’s problematic. In the current scholarly publishing system, scholarly articles — whose authors, editors, and peer reviewers are most often faculty, academics, and researchers  — eventually become goods owned not by the people who created them, but by a commercial entity who profits from them and their use. The people who are doing the labor — conducting research, writing articles, editing articles, and performing peer review — are not the ones who reap its rewards, at least not financially. Instead, corporate publishing businesses essentially commodify the work and wield control over how it will henceforth be handled, including its curation, discovery, dissemination, usage, and preservation. Further, there is ample evidence that these publishing conglomerates are steadily extending their reach beyond publishing endeavors to encompass, control, and profit from all aspects of the research lifecycle by making and selling tools for the entire scholarly workflow, from data management to impact analytics and even to open access.[2]

Why don’t authors choose to publish with not-for-profit journal publishers? 

Because faculty authors are embedded in academic culture and its tenure system, they face pressure to conform to traditional publishing expectations. For example, it’s often the case that disciplines and fellow academics in the field favor specific journals, such as those with established name recognition and with a high ranking or impact factor (calculated by citation rates of recently published articles). Authors may feel they need to submit their articles to these prestigious journals in order to impress their reappointment, tenure, or promotion committee. Whether or not the journal is operated by a commercial publisher may be less important to them than having their article accepted and published by a “big name” journal in their field.

Why don’t authors demand control over their own work?

Remember that many journal publishers ask authors to sign away their copyright via a copyright transfer agreement, or CTA. This exchange usually happens after the author has already had their article accepted for publication. They are eager to complete the process and may be willing to sign whatever the publisher asks them to in order to have their work published. Or they may not fully comprehend the ramifications of relinquishing their copyright. Or it may not even occur to them that they have a choice in the matter. They may not realize that they might be able to request or negotiate more favorable terms to retain rights to their own intellectual property.

Why don’t authors just post their articles on the Internet for anyone to read freely?

Refer back to the chapter on copyright. Authors can only legally post their non-previously published work — that is, content that they have not already published in a journal — or articles that they have published in a journal that permits them to retain their copyright and thus share and re-use the material.

In the case of the former, authors often don’t want to post work that hasn’t been formally published by a journal because 1) it hasn’t undergone peer review, and 2) any author who is seeking tenure and/or promotion needs the prestige conferred by journal publication.

Sometimes authors may post working drafts or other preliminary work on their blog, website, or an academic social network. But the system of scholarly communications is, at present, structured such that journal publication is the gold standard of sharing one’s work. The current system prioritizes sharing new knowledge with other academics and researchers rather than on making it available and accessible to those outside academia: the general public. This fact is at the core of the movement — the Open Access (OA) movement — calling for systemic reform.

What is Open Access (OA) and how does it seek to reform scholarly communications?

To understand Open Access, let’s start with by watching this excellent overview of OA and what it looks like in real life:[3]

The Open Access movement argues for the “free and unrestricted online availability . . . of peer-reviewed journal literature.”[4] It is the radical idea, rooted in social justice, that knowledge should be open and available to all, regardless of ability to pay or affiliation with the academy. According to the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI)[5], originally convened by OA advocates in 2002 in Budapest, Hungary, the OA movement seeks to revolutionize the scholarly communications system, transforming it from a closed, exclusive, and outdated model to an open, inclusive, and collaborative knowledge exchange:

“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”[6]

Here’s another definition of Open Access, this one from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC):

“Open Access is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open Access ensures that anyone can access and use these results—to turn ideas into industries and breakthroughs into better lives.”[7]

On its website, SPARC eloquently lays out the rationale for Open Access, articulating why the current system is deeply flawed:

  1. Governments provide most of the funding for research—hundreds of billions of dollars annually—and public institutions employ a large portion of all researchers.
  2. Researchers publish their findings without the expectation of compensation. Unlike other authors, they hand their work over to publishers without payment, in the interest of advancing human knowledge.
  3. Through the process of peer review, researchers review each other’s work for free.
  4. Once published, those that contributed to the research (from taxpayers to the institutions that supported the research itself) have to pay again to access the findings. Though research is produced as a public good, it isn’t available to the public who paid for it.[8]

To summarize, while large amounts of funding and labor go into the production of scholarly knowledge, the final product is restricted, not even fully available to those who contributed to its creation unless they pay additional fees or have conditional access (via their academic library) by virtue of their membership in the academy.

How does Open Access help shift power away from commercial publishers?

Open Access rejects the notion that knowledge is a commodity available only to those who can pay and instead argues that access to information is a human right. If everyone has access to academic literature, it means that scholarly knowledge is no longer controlled (or at least to a lesser extent) by corporate interests. Rather, authors can share their findings freely, readers worldwide can access those findings, new knowledge can be built, and greater advancements and developments can impact society.

Here is a useful image that lays out the many benefits of making knowledge openly available. The orange symbol in the middle is commonly used to denote Open Access.


Infographic with a large orange Open Access symbol (an open lock) at the center. Radiating outward from the symbol are eight orange arrows, each pointing to a black-and-white illustration depicting a benefit of Open Access. From the top, clockwise: an eye overlaid on a globe, with the text “More exposure for your work”; a person pointing at a chalkboard with a formula on it, with the text “Practitioners can apply your findings”; a graph with an arrow pointing sharply up and to the right, with the text “Higher citation rates”; a weighing scale balanced equally on both sides, with the text “Your research can influence policy”; four people standing together, with the text “The public can access your findings”; a handwritten document with a seal, with the text “Compliant with grant rules”; a piggy bank with a $1 coin at its top, with the text “Taxpayers get value for money”; and a globe symbol with two leaves at its top, with the text “Researchers in developing countries can see your work”.
Benefits of Open Access, CC-BY Danny Kingsley & Sarah Brown

How can authors make their scholarly journal articles available Open Access?

There are three main avenues to Open Access for authors of scholarly articles:

  1. Some scholarly journals have transformed to a fully OA model. In other words, every article they publish is Open Access; the full text is freely available to all readers. Typically, fully OA journals allow authors to retain their copyright. One example of a fully OA journal is College & Research Libraries; take a look and its website and you’ll notice that all of its articles are openly available for anyone to read.
  2. Some scholarly journals publish a mix of both “closed” (non-OA) and “open” (OA) articles. These journals are often referred to as hybrid journals and typically charge authors a fee (known as an “Article Processing Charge” (APC) or an “Open Access Publishing Fee”) if they want to make their article freely available. Different journals charge different APCs, and the amount can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousands. Sometimes authors may have grant or institutional support to help them pay an APC. International Business Review is an example of a hybrid journal; at this writing, its APC is $3,620 plus taxes.
  3. Open Access institutional or disciplinary repositories provide a pathway for authors to deposit a copy of their articles in order to provide free access to them. In this scenario, an author publishes their article in a scholarly journal and then deposits it, or a version of it, into an OA repository. The version that can be deposited depends on the publisher’s policies. For example, the journal ACS Chemical Biology permits authors to deposit the “accepted peer-reviewed manuscript” after 12 months have passed (an embargo) since its initial publication. The “accepted” version, sometimes called the “post-print,” refers to the version of the article after undergoing peer review, but before the publisher applied its signature formatting and layout. In other words, the content is identical to the final published version, but its appearance is different.

A journal article usually goes through three distinct versions in its lifecycle:

1) the initial version (“pre-print” or “submitted manuscript”) that the author submits to the journal;

2) the revised version (“post-print” or accepted manuscript”) after undergoing peer review and author corrections; and

3) the final published version (“version of record” or VOR) that appears in the journal.

A graphic depicting the stages that a journal article goes through. At top, the text “Rounds of drafting & informal feedback”, with a gray section underneath that reads “Preprint / Work in progress / Submitted version” with an icon of a document and pencil. A gray half-circle at the left flows to the text “Submitted to journal / Peer review / Author corrections”. Underneath, a green section labeled “Postprint / Author-accepted manuscript (AAM)” with an icon of a document and checkmark. A green half-circle to the left flows to the text “Copy-edited / Typeset / Formatted”. Underneath, an orange section labeled “Published / Version of record / PDF/HTML/XML / DOI from journal” with an icon of a document with professional layout and a checkmark.
Adapted from Thomas Shafee, CC-BY
















Open Access repositories typically house pre-prints and post-prints, but in some cases they have permission to share the version of record. An example of an institutional repository is Digital USD, the institutional repository for the University of San Diego. ArXiv.org is an example of a disciplinary repository. For more examples of OA repositories, complete the exercise below.

Exercise: OA Repositories

There are many open access repositories. Some are affiliated with particular institutions (e.g., Digital USD, at the University of San Diego) while others are disciplinary or feature specific types of content. In order to become familiar with some of them, please choose one from the list below and prepare a 12-15 minute presentation to introduce it to others. You must use some form of visual (such as Powerpoint slides, an infographic, a live demo, etc.) to accompany your remarks. In your presentation you may wish to address the following: (note: not all questions will apply to all repositories)

  • What is the mission, vision, and/or strategic plan of the repository?
  • Who owns/manages/maintains the repository?
  • Does it have an operating or business model? What is it?
  • When did it launch? How often is it updated?
  • What kind of content does the repository contain?
  • Who is permitted to submit/deposit their work?
  • Does the repository harvest content from other sources? If so, what are the sources?
  • What features and functionalities does it offer? How can you use it? Do you find it user-friendly?
  • Has it received any awards or criticism? Has it received coverage in the news or on social media?
  • Does the repository face any challenges (that you can ascertain)? These could be technical, organizational, financial, etc.




  1. Larivière V., Haustein S., Mongeon P. (2015). The Oligopoly of academic publishers in the digital era. PLOS ONE 10(6): e0127502. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127502
  2. Pooley, J. (2021, November 18). Surveillance Publishing. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/j6ung
  3. Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD Comics). (2012, Oct. 25). Open Access Explained! [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5rVH1KGBCY
  4. Budapest Open Access Initiative. (2002, Feb. 14). Retrieved from https://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/read/
  5. The BOAI recently celebrated its twenty-year anniversary with updated recommendations. See https://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/boai20/
  6. Budapest Open Access Initiative. (2002, Feb. 14). Retrieved from https://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/read/
  7. Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. "Open Access." Retrieved from https://sparcopen.org/open-access/
  8. Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. "Open Access." Retrieved from https://sparcopen.org/open-access/